Dodge City. I was actually in goddamn Dodge City. The mid-size town in the west of Kansas has come a long way from the days when it was a rail head of the Sante Fe railroad, a place where Texas longhorn cattle were driven to, en route to the stockyards of Kansas City and Chicago. The railroad took cattle north, and men south, a lot of them gang members thrown out of the big cities after the Civil War. Gangs like the Plug Uglies and Five Points Kings, featured in Asbury’s Gangs of New York, the basis for the much-underrated film, had the run of the cities while the war was on. Once it was over, the state expelled them en masse, and they took their urban ways — dandified clothes, gambling, prostitution — to the West. City boys became “cowtown boys”, and the label shortened and stuck. Most of the vastly exaggerated behaviour — a half-dozen gunfights across four states over 30 years — was at the hands of these guys, who had simply reconstituted urban gang life on a much larger campus.
When the frontier was wrapped up at the turn of the 20th century, many of them kept going west until they hit Los Angeles at the same time the movie industry did. Some of them took jobs as extras with the studios, or horse wranglers for DW Griffith’s epics Birth of a Nation, a racist, pro-KKK, film, and Intolerance, an ancient epic Griffth made to protest against being called a racist KKK sympathiser. They stayed on, told their stories, embellished them, and it all started to find its way into the movies. Wyatt Earp, sometime Dodge City native, whose name adorns the main boulevard out of town, was a good friend of the great director John Ford, who would go on to make an actor named Marion Morrison into John Wayne and turn the Western into Hollywood’s key genre for half a century. Once the frontier had reached the sea, its lore was put on a film and consigned to history, printed as myth. Earp had told everyone of the “Dodge City war” of 1883, when rival gangs confronted each other. He omitted the fact that it was a bloodless “war”, really more of a local government standoff.
I had my own little Dodge City showdown in the basement of the Dodge City Village Square Mall, where I’d gone to get a bus ticket — Beeline, all the way across Kansas! — and hoped to add the place to my collection of dead malls or dying malls, the dozens of concrete carcasses that litter the nation in the wake of both the online boom and depression. Alas, or happily, the Village Square was in good health, or health at least, with only a third of its shopfronts shuttered. In the basement, the ticket office was run from the combined realtor (real estate agent)/keys cutting agent. “And we’re adding more,” said the perky little sunflower of a lady at the desk.
“Well, nobody’s buying houses, I guess.”
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“Yeah, I hear Kansas is doing it tough.”
“Well, the whole country is, until that man goes back to wherever he came from.”
Here we go. Here we bloody go.
“Still,” I said, keeping my cool, aware of my journalistic role and that this was the only way out of Dodge City, “Kansas seems to be doing worse than most places. I heard that Sam Brownback is in trouble.”
“Yes,” she said, quieter now, the little sunflower turning a little. “I believe he is.”
“Kansas under a Democrat –”
“Yes, Obama sure has changed this country. Your bus leaves from the west entrance. Good day.”
The tetchiness is understandable, since the difficulties into which Brownback has fallen rather pop the bubble of the Right as regards the Obama era. Brownback, a former senator, took the governor’s mansion in 2010, at the height of Tea Party triumphalism, and promptly announced that Kansas would serves an example for the country. In the New Republic, John Judis has a withering critical analysis of the state’s performance under Brownback, whose demand-starved-induced state-level depression has proved an example of the wrong type. Brownback’s failure, and the consequent threat to his reign by Democrat Paul Davis, is especially disturbing to the Republicans because the experiment was undertaken with the belief that you could do almost anything to a state like Kansas — midwestern but with a southern character, its one-time frontier rural populism transferred to the Right — and it would suck it up and stay red state. Its failure to do so indicates one of the more interesting reversals of these midterms, the sneaking success that the Democrats may have in winning the governorship of several key states.
In looking to such victories, the Democrats are less concerned with the capacity to change water-management policy in Waxahachie than they are with the future. And not 2016, either, or even 2020. The battle for the state houses is geared to 2022 and 2024. Why? Because every 10 years, after the constitutionally mandated census at decade’s end, the congressional districts across the nation are redistributed according to population shifts, and with the total number fixed at 435. Some states lose districts, others gain, and either way, the boundaries have to be redrawn. And of course, even where there is no change in number, boundaries must shift to allow for population shift. Not by an appointed public-service commission, or even, mostly, by a multipartisan board. No, they are drawn by the state government in question, and the vast majority of Democratic and Republican states gerrymander their holdings shamelessly, creating districts with no real chance of changing hands. Hence, in this election, there are no more than 20 genuinely competitive seats across the country. The battle for the House of Representatives now was lost at the same time as the Democrats won big at national level, between 2006 and 2010, when they quietly lost a few key state houses. State competitions have become de facto national elections.
Which may be the one bright spot in this election for team blue, for there are several governorships within their grasp.
One of the most important is in Florida, which was in the aftermath of a real estate bubble burst in 2010, and, with a low mid-term turnout, proved a juicy target for the Tea Party. They could have got a traffic cone elected, and they pretty much did. Rick Scott, a multimillionaire doctor who had got rich from overbilling Medicare, won the governorship after the non-contestation of the incumbent, Charlie Crist, who had made a bid for the Senate and then departed the Republican Party after it became clear he would lose the primary because of his perceived centrism. With control of the mansion and the statehouse, the Republicans tried to push through a post-2010 redistricting so absurd that the state’s own Supreme Court rejected it as illegal — as of course, the Republicans always knew it would. They then offered up a redistricting that was only moderately unfair, within the limits set by a “fair districts” ballot measure that had passed some years earlier. There is no chance that the Democrats would take the state upper and lower houses anytime soon, but if they can keep and hold the governor’s mansion, they will be able to fight the state house to a draw.
It’s a measure of what a backlash there was that Scott is in office a all — the man dubbed “the worst major office-holder in America” by MSNBC made headlines in a gubernatorial debate mid-month when he refused to come out on stage for the first 10 minutes because Crist had an “illegal device” — an electric fan at his feet, which he takes everywhere (it has its own Twitter account). When he did come out and join the debate, Scott was forced to admit that he had — are you eating anything? — delayed an execution so his attorney-general could attend a fundraiser. In recent days, he hitched himself to the Ebola quarantine bandwagon, even though the state had no cases flying in. He is still running radio ads by his mother, urging a vote for her son. He and Crist are running neck and neck.
Equally hard-fought is the Wisconsin race, often thought of as a reliably progressive state, where Scott Walker, a Tea Party-backed businessman, took the mansion, and, together with the legislature, introduced laws to make it difficult for public sector unions to organise. A protest movement formed and took over the capital, Madison (original home of The Onion), for days, forcing the state to a governor recall and re-election vote — which the unions, erm, lost. Walker became a national figure for the Right, for rallying against the Obama progressive wave, but Wisconsin has had the worst recovery in the north-east, and Mary Burke, his opponent, is the CEO of an adventure bike company that ticks all boxes. Should Walker win, he’ll be a presidential contender in 2016. Lose? A Fox news host for eight months.
But the real prize for the Democrats is Pennsylvania, a hard-core Democrat state in presidential elections, which nevertheless chose a Republican governor, Tom Corbett, in 2010. Pennsylvania lost one district after 2010 and will likely lose at least one more after 2020, which would give the opportunity for a thorough reorganisation of its districts. The state has 18 of them, so three for four can be gained from dicing and slicing, and repacking after the next census.
And that’s how it’s done. State-by-state, win control of the process, and create 20 to 30 new safe seats for yourself across the country, and that puts you in reach of a majority. Of course by that point a genuine nationwide “fair districting” movement might have taken root, and the major parties shamed into creating a competitive election. But that eventuality is not the sort of thing that either side is going to count on. As far as procedural politics goes, the US largely remains a lawless frontier, not yet out of Doge City. Such corruption. So rancid.